- Long probation terms impose high costs on people under supervision and court systems, while not contributing to public safety.
- An efficient process for ending lengthy probation terms early can allow courts to safely and easily end supervision for those who do not need it.
There are over 3.5 million adults in the U.S. on probation—more people than are incarcerated in jails or prisons or are on parole combined. A growing body of evidence shows that long probation terms are costly for court systems, drive up incarceration rates, and do not contribute to greater public safety. Continued supervision also imposes an unjust burden on those serving long probation terms. Many people on probation are not considered “high risk” to their communities and may not be actively supervised, but face significant challenges to rebuilding their lives, such as being barred from employment and housing opportunities. People who spend longer under supervision are also more likely to have a technical violation of their probation such as forgetting to check in with their officer, which can land them in jail.
In 2017, the state of Georgia took a step toward reducing its probation population by passing SB 174, which aimed to minimize the number of low-risk individuals on probation through early termination. We partnered with the Georgia Department of Community Supervision (DCS) and the Council of State Governments to test new ways to support the timely processing of petitions for early termination and help more eligible people successfully reintegrate into their communities.
Designing for behavioral barriers such as hassles associated with using unfamiliar processes, we developed new versions of court petitions with features such as pre-populated forms, and supplemental materials for probation officers and judges that reinforced the idea that early termination is the goal of such a process, clarified the steps officers and judges needed to take, and streamlined judges’ processing of the petitions.
While Georgia DCS began using the pre-populated forms in all jurisdictions, we tested the impact of the behaviorally-designed supplemental materials. To have probation terminated, a person must first complete all of the original conditions imposed by the judge and the probation officer. We found that in jurisdictions using the supplemental materials, about 38% more petitions were ultimately approved for early termination by a judge. However, probation officers who used the materials denied about 35% more petitions (25.5% vs 16.5% denied).
This work demonstrates how simple changes in court practice can enable courts to safely and efficiently reduce the number of people under supervision. The surprising finding that supplemental materials may have led more probation officers to deny petitions points to the need to test interventions and explore what is driving the outcomes to ensure that more efficient processes are also delivering fair results.
Interested in learning more about this work? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.